Long reads

Why are we still getting inclusion wrong?

28 Sep 2019 By Jo Faragher

Despite diversity's rightful place high on the workplace agenda, few organisations are delivering on their promises to be genuinely inclusive. Little wonder their employees are in revolt

The concept of diversity and inclusion should be a joyous celebration of human experience. Yet it garners the most attention when it is the source of conflict or embarrassment. Two recent examples illustrate this perfectly. First, there was the Twitter storm that engulfed Citizens Advice this summer, after a piece of training guidance it issued was described as “horribly racist”. In materials the charity has since withdrawn was a slide titled ‘Barriers we find in BAME communities’, which perpetuated several outdated stereotypes.

The #charitysowhite hashtag began trending and there was an outpouring of experiences of discrimination and racism, suggesting that this was far from a one-off incident. “If your organisation preaches diversity and inclusion, yet all managers and trustees are white, have a look in the mirror and have an honest word with yourself about what’s really going on,” said one tweeter.

Then there was Cadbury’s misguided attempt to promote racial harmony through the release of a new brand of chocolate. Unity, a Dairy Milk bar redesigned to include four shades of chocolate from white to dark via milk and blended, was only available in India – where it was released on the country’s independence day – but its impact was felt across the world, where people accused the company of simplifying racism and patronising its audience. 

Both incidents were problematic and unfortunate, but arguably they obscure a bigger truth that may explain why the encouraging progress on diversity made in recent years has not led to greater inclusion in the eyes of experts and HR professionals: organisations simply aren’t fundamentally committed to the concept.

It’s up to all companies to look at whether the diversity and inclusion promises they make to employees are reflected in their day-to-day experiences at work. The metrics alone show just what a mixed picture UK business paints in this area. Employers are undoubtedly making progress on gender representation and equal pay, for example, thanks to reporting legislation and pressure from investors. But data from executive search company Green Park last year found that only 52 per cent of the FTSE 100 has non-white board or executive committee members. 

In fact, the Sutton Trust’s report into those who hold positions of power in the UK shows that privately educated people still make up the majority of judges, 43 per cent of news media and 34 per cent of chief executives of PR firms – despite only 7 per cent of the population attending an independent school. 

Little wonder inclusion isn’t happening for most. “The first failure organisations make is they want a silver bullet,” says Frank Douglas, CEO and founder of consulting firm Caerus. “So they cut and paste initiatives from other companies. It might be employee resource networks, mentoring, emerging leader programmes, returnships, unconscious bias training, flexible working, enhanced maternity leave. Then they sit and wait for the results to roll in.” The problem is, their leadership culture and HR processes are unique to them. “They’re not looking internally at what works for their company, their leadership behaviours, their practices and the unintended consequences of those practices.” 


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This is the nub of the difference between diversity and inclusion. As a new CIPD report, Building inclusive workplaces, explains, inclusion is what gives diversity impact. It is intrinsically related to individual experience in the workplace. And it requires separate measurement and a very specific set of interventions. 

Simply adopting a diversity initiative because it has gained popularity or has worked for a competitor doesn’t mean it will have the same impact in your organisation. “Take diverse interview panels,” says Douglas. “In most organisations, women and BAME staff are more junior. They may well be more junior than the hiring manager, which creates a certain power dynamic. They can tell that manager why they think their candidate is the best person for the role, but [the manager] will still pick their preferred candidate because they’re the most senior person in the room. They’re not examining why their interview panels aren’t working; they’re ‘solutioneering’.” 

And for the people these solutions are intended to benefit, it can feel tokenistic, even false. Blogger and coach Sarupa Shah applied for a place on a diversity programme at a publishing company, but it felt like window dressing rather than something aimed at promoting a more inclusive culture, she says. “Like so many ‘initiatives’, it was a case of ‘apply but don’t get anything but mentoring’, as though you clearly aren’t good enough and we can help you be better.” 

She felt the programme did nothing to address the issues that candidates from a BAME background faced and, because it offered the ‘carrot’ of a job, it was oversubscribed. “It isn’t a commitment to change. It’s just to be seen to be doing something,” she adds. “Those internal doors never get opened fully. The idea still is that diversity is to help people who aren’t white ‘get up to speed’ – that’s the hidden, or not so hidden, message behind so many initiatives and it just perpetuates the same closed-door policy and glass ceiling that isn’t being broken.” 

Shah asked the company to reveal how many non-white applications for permanent roles had been refused and on what basis, but failed to get a response.

Leng Montgomery, diversity and inclusion manager at property company Cushman & Wakefield, challenged leaders to listen when he worked for a supermarket chain in a previous role. After taking part in focused listening exercises with BAME staff he decided to do the same with LGBT+ colleagues, but on a one-to-one rather than group basis. “Working in groups was positive, but if someone had a strong personality type this could lead to a ‘halo and horns’ effect. There are also many separate identities within LGBT+ and it was important to hear all of them,” he says. 

“I’m open about my LGBT+ status, but 40 per cent of the people who took part were not out at work. The one-to-one setting meant they felt safe to talk. If no one says anything about what’s going on, an organisation can’t do anything. We can’t be the eyes and ears of everything.” 

This rich mix of data and stories made the board sit up and notice, he adds. “We could talk to the board and say ‘these are the issues facing our LGBT+ colleagues’ and show them that some of the issues were the same as our BAME colleagues’ in terms of career development.”  

Senior leaders often have to see the issues more starkly before they understand. “Sometimes it feels like everything is going swimmingly because you don’t realise there’s an issue,” Jill Miller, policy adviser at the CIPD, says. “In some cases, employers are getting a diverse workforce in but not creating an inclusive culture. You can also have an inclusive culture where the workforce is not diverse. They’ll score highly on inclusion, but not benefit from diverse perspectives on decisions and opportunities, and will miss out on talent.” 

This was the case at a multinational energy company, according to Fiona Jackson, a former head of diversity and inclusion who now works as a consultant. Alongside a raft of initiatives aimed at increasing both female and BAME representation, it introduced an inclusion index that asked employees to respond to statements such as: ‘Senior leaders believe in diversity and inclusion.’ 

The scores kept reaching above 80 per cent, which Jackson discovered was down to inclusion bias – where people in homogenous groups feel engaged and included because they’re alike. “There was an inclusion bias because there was a highly white and male workforce,” she says. “So we looked at the index scores for minority groups, which in some cases were a lot lower.” Targeted initiatives for LGBT+ staff and colleagues with disabilities are leading to improvements in those scores. 

Where organisations have been struggling to achieve greater inclusion, it may be because they’re not examining diversity in a holistic way; with a legal imperative to look at gender representation and pay, this strand may feel easier to ‘fix’ or at least more urgent. Miller adds: “There has been a lot of research into building gender diversity and we’ve had the Hampton-Alexander and Davies reviews. But with a strand such as race, the causes and solutions are not as well understood, and people are sometimes uncomfortable talking about them in case they say the wrong thing.” 

Miller advocates considering applying some of the lessons and practices that worked well with gender to other protected characteristics – developing a clear understanding of how people who identify with those groups move through the business and their access to career development, and working with employee resource groups to understand their experience of work. 

This means building a deeper understanding of the true picture of diversity and inclusion in an organisation, the CIPD report points out. It could start with a bespoke survey to collect inclusion data or better use of existing data, as well as feedback sessions and deep analysis. But it should ideally result in action across five areas that make a real difference: employee behaviour, line manager capability, senior leadership, policies and practices, and organisational culture, climate and values. 

What this looks like depends very much on the context of the employer. For example, for some acknowledging employees’ identities outside the office – whether they’re parents or have a ‘side hustle’ they want to explore – is a core part of making everyone feel welcome. “It’s about changing how we evaluate success,” says diversity consultant Dr Pragya Agarwal. “Flexible working offers people the opportunity to adapt their work commitments to fit their lifestyle, so when we see inclusion in action it’s often alongside equal maternity and paternity allowances, flexible working and the like.”  

For others, employee resource groups and networks are vital. At homelessness charity St Mungo’s, eight diversity networks agree targets and sit on the D&I steering committee. They set their own strategies and are held accountable for meeting targets. “It’s not a top-down HR thing,” says executive director of people and governance Helen Giles. “Management works in partnership with the networks and each has a sponsor.” 

The charity is currently in the process of appointing two BAME trustees to its previously entirely white board. “We’ve agreed some aspirational targets with the BAME network for representation at different levels of seniority over the next five years; we look at the statistics and form a positive action strategy,” adds Giles. 

Inclusion is also hard-wired into career development – a management programme gives BAME staff first refusal of the most senior mentors and 40 per cent of participants now have non-white backgrounds. 

Employee networks can be a valuable source of feedback on employees’ day-to-day experiences and are where you build the ‘stories’ behind the statistics. Katie Neeves, who runs transgender campaign Cool2BTrans, argues this will help push through change more than any policy. “If someone from HR goes in and says ‘this is your transgender module’, people will switch off. You need to see the whites of their eyes,” she says. Neeves often tells her transition story and encourages people to ask questions. “One of the issues is that courses tend to be optional, which means I’m preaching to the converted. Allies might be more likely to call out transphobia when they see it, but you want to get to the people who aren’t supportive.” 

This demonstrates why networks are only part of the solution. There is a strong argument that encouraging people into distinct groups does little to help the ‘rest’ of the organisation value and act on inclusion, and may emphasise the concept of ‘otherness’. For some, however, it is a vital first step in beginning a conversation about who we are.

And it’s only by listening to, and understanding, the experiences of others that businesses can shift the culture as well as the numbers, says Douglas: “Most organisations focus on assimilation rather than inclusion: ‘We’ll get in a more diverse set of people and fit them into our mould.’ True inclusion is where we get people in and flex the organisation to exploit their talents. Most organisations are not listening enough.”

“We’re a different kind of law firm”

Like many organisations, law firm Shakespeare Martineau (pictured) monitors its diversity statistics, benchmarks them internally and against its competitors, and offers diversity and inclusion training. But it recognises that these activities alone will do little to change the culture as a whole. 

For the past few years, it has developed an ethos known as #BeYourself – something that evolved out of its diversity network, More in Common. “It’s about who you are, what makes you different and interesting, what gives you the confidence to just bring yourself to work,” says Victoria Tester, chief operating officer. 

For employees, this comes to life through individualised career development – “creating the path around you rather than saying ‘this is the path you need to follow to become a lawyer’”. The dress code invites people to ‘dress for their diary’ rather than feeling they have to wear suits on days they’re not in court or meeting with clients. There are programmes that encourage speaking up about mental health issues, and requests for flexible or agile ways of working are encouraged. These are the ‘levers’ that ensure employees feel confident, says Tester: “We want to ensure we have the enablers in place that sit underneath an inclusive culture. Leaders set the tone with their decisions and actions. We can have a diverse environment through what we do rather than setting targets for representation.” 

HR business partners work with line managers to support this culture across the firm’s network of eight offices. Levels of inclusion are measured in a number of ways: a new pulse survey has been set up that includes the question: ‘Do you feel you can be yourself at work?’ and exit interviews flag up potentially negative behaviour. 

Wahida Mukadam, learning and development business partner, says: “For me, it’s all about acceptance that I was hired with my own unique set of skills, experiences and perspectives. 
It also means that when I need support, I can ask for it without fear of judgement or discrimination.”

“We have to get D&I right or we face a talent shortage”

Delivering the high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham has not been without its challenges, with recent news suggesting the first phase of HS2’s delivery will be delayed by up to five years. Add to this the widening skills gaps in the industry – a quarter of the rail construction workforce is set to retire by 2028, for example – and diversity is an imperative rather than an aspiration. 

According to Mark Lomas, head of equality, diversity and inclusion, one of HS2’s most successful moves has been a ‘blind audition’ approach to recruitment – removing CVs and application forms and replacing them with an anonymous, skills-based assessment. This approach has increased the diversity of applicants at shortlisting stage significantly: from 17 per cent to 47 per cent for women, and from 14 per cent to 50 per cent for BAME groups, while ensuring applicants meet the right level of technical competence. 

HS2’s suppliers must also submit a detailed plan on how they approach diversity. “By building this explicitly into our procurement and contract management approach, we are providing the platform for organisations to broaden the talent we are bringing into the sector,” says Lomas.

But while improving the numbers is great, “it is very important to bridge the gap between public commitments and the reality of the organisation”, he adds. HS2 creates a culture of inclusion in a number of ways. One is by setting leaders clear expectations. “This includes performance objectives such as completing the reverse mentoring programme and being responsible for completion rates of mandatory EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] training and data completion,” says Lomas. 

In addition, EDI is treated as a competency and is threaded through HS2’s leadership framework. “We also have a culture of participation, giving opportunities to engage with EDI and being explicit about the benefits our approach has generated, both in the organisation and across the supply chain,” he adds.

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